Is Russia Following SpaceX’s Lead on Dragon?

The New Norm Credit : RKK Energia

The New Norm
Credit : RKK Energia

Anatoly Zak has an interesting story about Russia’s planned successor to the Soyuz crew capsule on his site Russianspaceweb.com, and as usual it provides a wealth of information.  What is particularly intriguing about new spacecraft,  labelled PTK NK,  is the fact it is currently being designed to make propulsive landings much like the SpaceX Dragon, which it somewhat resembles.   One key difference is that it would use a cluster of solid rockets with thrust control mounted under the base of the capsule,  jettisoning the heat shield just before touchdown on four deployable legs.

A successor to Soyuz has been in the works for a long time, during which it has undergone numerous changes in both its basic design as well as the launch vehicle which would carry it.   The one constant has been the lack of funding to begin the project in earnest, but that may soon be changing.  The Russian space program is currently undergoing quite a revival,  receiving an inordinate amount of attention from President Vladimir Putin,  who visited the new Vostochny Cosmodrome in the far east earlier this month, and used the occasion to promise an investment of $52 billion in the Russian space program between now and 2020.

Due to its far eastern location,  Vostochny does not have a suitable zone for conventional parachute only landings like those employed for the current Soyuz descents at the vast Baikonur Cosmodrome in  Kazakhstan.  Consequently, if Russia maintains its intention to launch and return cosmonauts from the new spaceport, it either has to work with a tightly controlled landing zone,  or move to water based splashdowns in the Pacific.   The design for the spacecraft is clearly not set, and and during his visit, Putin told the press that  ” Most probably, according to specialists, they will come down on the ocean. So our cosmonauts will splash down rather than touch down.”   Putin was apparently referring to the current smash and roll for Soyuz when he mentioned “touch down.”

If the PTK NK  ( which desperately needs a better name) design ultimately settles on propulsive touchdown, one wonders what  influence the new SpaceX  Dragon 2.o , which is due to be unveiled  later this year, is exerting on that decision.  Even if never explicitly acknowledged, it seems possible that in actually going forward into development with a concept which has been around since the earliest days of the space age, rather than just producing viewgraphs, SpaceX may have already shifted the paradigm, forcing others to follow or risk being perceived as “so last generation.”   Peer pressure is not just  a problem for children and young adults, and with national space program’s inevitably justified partially on the basis of maintaining “prestige” it cannot be dismissed as a driver.

Propulsive landings on planet Earth are hardly the sole province of SpaceX.   Masten Space Systems and Armadillo Aerospace are well into testing  and flying their respective unmanned systems,  and Blue Origin is presumably somewhere along the same path with New Shepard.  All of the above owe a debt of gratitude to the DC-X program which showed the way,  but  it may be that just as the ultimate result of the  RLV work taking place with Grasshopper is likely to force others to follow suit, the new Russian crew vessel could be further evidence of the SpaceX effect,  otherwise known as leading by example.

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8 Comments on "Is Russia Following SpaceX’s Lead on Dragon?"

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  1. Thanks for the mention of Masten and Armadillo, they often get forgotten in pieces like this.

    “The one constant has been the lack of funding to begin the project in earnest, but that may soon be changing.” is one of those phrases that could describe a huge number of space projects.

  2. ian says:

    I doubt Russia is following SpaceX lead on this, if anything it’d be the other way around (which it isn’t). The Russians have been proposing this system for many many years, just do a google search. Back then nobody took the idea seriously…

    Then again, I doubt they’ll actually build it.

  3. Michael says:

    I find the apparent attitude of space agencies and other incumbent players to be enormously high risk. It seems to me that they are betting heavily – financially, prestige and credibility – that SpaceX RLV efforts will fail. How will SLS, Arianne 5ME/6, Angara, etc, etc, all look when Falcon 9 first stages start landing propulsively. How many Shuttle posters will stay on bedroom walls after DragonRider lands vertically by superdraco power. I can’t help but imagine that a lot of designs and funding lobbyists are going to start to look very stupid almost overnight, if SpaceX succeeds. It may be “IF”, but right now I wouldn’t bet one dollar against SpaceX succeeding, let alone billions of dollars on yesterdays tech.

    • Dick Eagleson says:

      Established institutions are usually either paranoid – aggressively squishing anything that looks like it might be even a potential threat to business as usual – or torpid and clueless while the quick little mammals dart in and out between their toes and eat their eggs. NASA, ESA and even the Russians are all in the latter category. They and their associated schools of rent-seeking pilotfish imagine they can keep on with their gold-plated, molasses-slow development projects indefinitely. The next few years are going to be an unending series of rude shocks to their systems. You and I can plainly see the storm coming but the folks about to get drenched don’t seem to have a clue.

  4. my idea says:

    … no … both, are following MY (better and safer) 2007 idea of landing cushion pads … gaetanomarano.it/articles/025orioncopter.html

    • Michael says:

      Are the rotors passive or powered?. How far have you got with the design of your “Extensible Cushion Pads”?. I presume they are made from a special high impact resistant extendible cushioning material – that’s certainly the material I would use for such a project.

      Surely, specifically for Orion, it would just as easy to land on a huge comforting bed of hundred dollar bills. Also, if the $6 billion dollar cracked hull got any worse from the impact, you’d already have lots of money ready to start another 10 year development program.

      • Michael says:

        I had originally assumed the rotors would be passive, but I asked anyway to be polite. Now I’ve actually read your article rather than just looked at the pictures , I’m even more confident that I was correct in my original assumption.

  5. Bill Hensley says:

    “Surely, specifically for Orion, it would just as easy to land on a huge comforting bed of hundred dollar bills.”

    LOL

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